The connection between spirituality and mental health is well-known. This is mainly thanks to research into the benefits of yoga and mindfulness meditation. Studies have shown that these practices can promote relaxation, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and (in the longer term) improve and even restore brain health.
What many people do not know, however, is that they also have other options in the form of spiritual practices that are good for their mental health. In my own work directing a treatment program at FHE Health for first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, I encourage patients to cultivate their individual spirituality in various ways. That is because, from my own experience, spiritual practices do improve mental health just as the research shows. What follow are some tips for practices to consider implementing, based on their established benefits….
1. Experiment with different types of meditation
“Mindfulness meditation,” which uses focus on the breath to cultivate non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they ebb and flow, is just one type of meditation. There are at least nine other types of meditation, according to Healthline:
• “Spiritual meditation” focuses on deepening one’s connection with a Higher Power in the context of one’s religious faith.
• “Focused meditation” incorporates an external object of focus like rosary beads, a candle, or a repetitive sound like a gong to encourage focus.
• “Movement meditation,” in addition to yoga exercises, can refer to walking, gardening, or just about any physical activity (swimming, running, etc.) that increases awareness of the mind-body connection in the present moment.
• “Mantra meditation” employs a repetitive word or sound to cultivate greater alertness and awareness.
Because what works for one person may not work for the next person, it may help to experiment with these different types of meditation to see which is best for you. For example, if more traditional, breath-centered meditation does not come easily, mantra meditation or another form may.
2. Go on a spiritual retreat
A March 2017 study at Thomas Jefferson University found that participation in a spiritual or religious retreat causes a “significant” spike in the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. (Dopamine and serotonin play a role in the brain’s reward and emotional regulation systems.)
In this case, the study participants were taking part in a seven-day, Christian contemplation retreat. They showed “marked improvements” in “physical health, tension, and fatigue” and “increased feelings of self-transcendence” reportedly linked to changes in dopamine. (Both dopamine and serotonin are associated with “positive emotions and spiritual feelings.”)
3. Look for silver linings in negative experiences
A 2022 study found that people who are religious often automatically apply this strategy—what psychologists sometimes refer to as “cognitive reappraisal” or “reframing”—to the hardships that they experience. Taking this perspective toward difficult events can reduce anxiety and depression, research has found. Interestingly, cognitive reappraisal and reframing are at the heart of “cognitive-behavioral therapy,” a type of psychotherapy associated with better treatment outcomes for people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
4. Get outdoors and spend time in nature
Time in the outdoors is good for cognitive and mental health, as evidenced by an up-to-date compilation of findings by the American Psychological Association (APA). Among the many healing benefits: a reduction in stress (a major predictor of mental health issues); better focus; and positive mood, happiness, and wellbeing. Strikingly, one study reported by the APA found that kids who lived in neighborhoods with more green space had lower rates of mental health disorders. Meanwhile, the risks of developing mental illness were 55 percent higher for those who grew up in neighborhoods with the least amount of green space.
5. Develop and practice gratitude
“Giving thanks can make you happier,” a Harvard Health headline read. The ensuing article goes on to cite research in support of this claim. For example, after just ten weeks of writing down what they were thankful for in their week, study participants were happier than those who did nothing.
The practice of saying “thank you” can also be a way to connect meaningfully with others and with one’s God or Higher Power. This sense of connectedness can contribute to a greater overall sense of belonging, wellbeing, and ultimately mental health.
6. Get involved in a service project
Volunteering causes a release in the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, according to the Mayo Clinic, thereby reducing stress and increasing positive feelings and relaxation. Another benefit for mental health is the sense of purpose, meaning, and appreciation that often goes along with volunteering for a good cause or helping those in need.
Some research has also revealed that people who volunteer tend to have lower blood pressure. How might lower blood pressure relate to mental health? A 2014 study found that people who have high blood pressure are more likely to experience negative emotions and in turn be affected by anxiety and depression. In other words, by reducing blood pressure, volunteering can build resilience to related mental health issues.
Taking the time to implement any of the above spiritual tips will no doubt help boost one’s mental health and well-being. The good news is there is an infinite number of ways to build a spiritual foundation. If one practice doesn’t work, try another.
The beauty of spiritual practices is that they can be done at any time, with or without other people. To keep motivation high for developing a regular spiritual regimen, find others who are also working towards greater spiritual health.
The more one works on spiritual growth, the more one will attract positive, mentally healthy people in one’s life. Besides helping alleviate mental health disorders, spirituality will help one tap into one’s internal strength to overcome life’s obstacles. Consistency over time with spiritual practices yields the best results. Do not get discouraged and give up, for every day is a day to start over and begin again.
This article was provided by Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, who is the director of “Shatterproof,” a treatment program for first responders at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.